Three lessons learned from Stephen King’s “On Writing”

On Writing by Stephen King is much more of a memoir than I anticipated. I expected it to be more prescriptive, like many of the books on writing that I’ve read. But King had a different lesson in mind. He decided to show how his life had shaped his writing, and vice versa.

King does offer some instruction on writing in the latter half of the book. I took away three key lessons from it.

1. The first draft is for you.  The second draft should be for everyone else. King says he learned this approach as a teenager from his first newspaper editor, who told him: “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

I’ve been a journalist for more than a decade, and I know this lesson well. Reading it in King’s book was a good reinforcement. Every piece of writing I have ever done has begun as a story I told to myself. I think that’s my favorite part of the process — getting the story out there so that I can enjoy it. I admire the heart of the story. I enjoy the turns of phrase. I stuff in every bit of information I have that I think is interesting.

When I’m done, I read it as a reader, not  a writer. The second draft is for everyone. Maybe a turn of phrase is too florid for someone who isn’t particularly impressed with my writing skills. I take that out. I notice some repetition of an idea or information, so I make some cuts. I examine whether my reader will have any unanswered questions. I ask myself if I’ve given the reader a reason to start and finish the story. As King says in this book, you write the first draft with your door closed. The story is just for you. Then you open the door upon starting the second draft, because after that the story belongs to the whole world.

2.  Fear is a writer’s enemy. King writes: “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

I’m an editor as well as a writer, and I’ve seen my fair share of bad writing. Some of the worst writing has come from writers who had no confidence in their abilities. They assumed that whatever they wrote was going to be terrible. And they fulfilled that prophecy.

King points out that overuse of the passive voice, for instance, comes from a writer’s timidity. The writer is fearful of asserting an idea too strongly. He or she backs into ideas or actions rather than boldly laying them out for the reader. The timid writer writes “Joe was shaken by his own quick decision to shoot the guy” rather than “Joe shot the guy and trembled.”

The same goes for turgid prose. Overuse of adverbs and adjectives. Reaching for cliches rather than coming up with something original. Writers do this when they think their writing is plain or dull. But a confident writer can pen lean prose that rivets an audience. Any inexperienced or tentative writer should approach the second draft of a story with the intention of cutting 50% of all their adverbs and adjectives. Replace adverbs with more descriptive verbs and nouns. Those are the most powerful words in any sentence. Adjectives and adverbs are like perfume. Too much will give you a headache.

3. A good story with good characters beats everything else. This sounds simple, so let me quote King: “When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.”

What does this mean to me? It’s not the gimmicks that really matter. Genre writers might be able to catch some eyeballs with some fabulous world-building, cool magic systems, and awesome technology. But in the end, readers want good characters that they can relate to and care about. And they want a story that pulls them along.

With that in mind, you should try to put a something real into all of your characters. Give them a piece of you or a piece of someone you love. Or someone you hate.  You don’t have to make your characters analogs of yourself. Every human being is complicated by thousands of memories and feelings and fears and desires. Just give one or two of those things to your characters. Yearning for a lost love. A desire to rise to the top in a career. A fear of heights. A weakness for cookies. These things make characters human. And you’ll find it easier to add other traits and quirks to them that don’t necessarily come from you.

Once those characters come alive, the story also comes alive. Whatever your characters want will drive the story.

4. King had another lesson related to the one about a good story, a lesson I disagree with. He says plotting isn’t important. Character and situation is important. Put a good character in a situation that they need to get out of and the story will come. Apparently that is King’s approach to writing his gigantic novels. Obviously it works for him. He’s made a fortune with it. Others subscribe to this approach, too.

I can’t operate that way. I do build characters and I do put them into situations. But I also need to have a plan. Otherwise, I get stuck. I don’t have to start with that plan, but ultimately I need to have it. I need to map the plot to some extent. Thousands of other writers agree with me, so I won’t bother to argue the point.  Some writers are gardeners and others are architects, or as Chuck Wendig would say: Some people are plotters and some are pantsers (i.e. seat of their pants).